Friday, March 16, 2012

With warmth, wit and wisdom

A certain much-loved television detective series – the one set in Oxford, about a real ale, Wagner and crossword-loving detective – wouldn’t have been half so good if it hadn’t been for Colin Dexter’s wonderful original stories.
Colin Dexter was famously inspired to pen his first ‘Inspector Morse’ on a wet family holiday in Wales – and ended up writing an iconic series that not only inspired three television series, but brought tourists in their droves to Oxford.
Inspector Morse doesn’t spend a lot of time with his forensic team looking in microscopic detail at body parts. He spends a lot of time drinking beer and falling for bad women.
He also spends a lot of time analysing the nuances of a stray comment overhead at a bus stop. And can find a clue even in as random a piece of paper as a shopping list (that the reader overlooks totally as a serious clue). Or a clue in how words will appear differently to someone who can’t hear.
Colin Dexter’s stories are intelligently written and cleverly-presented puzzles – stories that often also finely balance human ambition and human frailty; where intelligent men fall from grace because they can’t get the better of their baser natures.
But one of the things I love about them is how often the clues rely on language.
From the letters to The Times in ‘The Way Through the Woods’, to the secret messages in the letters in both ‘Last Bus to Woodstock’ and ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn’ the love of language spills into the stories at so many levels.
If you go back to the books there are several things you find that you might miss if you have only ever watched the television series.
I love his playful writing style, which makes you feel he is having a terribly good time writing fiendish little mysteries to baffle his readers.
I love the way Colin Dexter often introduces each chapter with a literary quotation (and trying to spot the ones he’s made up).
At the time he started writing there was already a move favouring crime fiction with an emphasis on psychological detail, authentic police procedure and the science of forensics. But luckily he is a writer who has been very confident to follow his own style and is a great example of how comfort reading doesn’t mean reading without your brain in gear and that light reading can inspire you in different ways.
If I had to pick a favourite, it is probably ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn’. Or maybe ‘The Way Through the Woods’.
It is almost impossible to think of Inspector Morse and not to think of John Thaw. To picture those dreaming spires, hear that music . . . it is very easy to forget that it all stemmed from Colin Dexter’s wonderful stories - but be very grateful indeed that it rains a lot in Wales.
We are extremely honoured that Colin Dexter has agreed to come and talk at a Mostly Books event. If you want to come along to what will be an extremely enjoyable evening, it is on Tuesday Mar 20 at 7pm. Call us for a ticket on 01235 525880 or find out more here.

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